They'll be back

By Justin Hubbard

 

I was mere feet away from Devonta Smith as he broke Georgia fans’ hearts on what was supposed to be their night to finally taste glory.

I stood behind the end zone in which Smith, the Alabama wide receiver, caught a long pass and scored on Monday night’s final play. The play moved in slow motion, as I thought quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was simply throwing up a Hail Mary; I didn’t realize until the last second Smith was wide open.

Just minutes before, my hopes were lifted when Crimson Tide kicker Andy Pappanastos hooked what should’ve been the game-winning field goal wide left. I looked at Lake Oconee News general manager Mark Smith Jr., who had been on the sideline taking pictures the entire game (my press box credential granted me field access during the last five minutes), and said, “That’s the team of destiny.”

And I truly believed it. I had all season.

The last time Georgia won the national championship, it beat Notre Dame. This year, Georgia beat Notre Dame. For good measure, Georgia went to Pasadena and won the Rose Bowl – the site of the program’s first title in 1943. There were so many huge plays made by the Bulldogs this year.

No one could have seen this year’s success coming after last year’s underwhelming finish. Add in the fact a true freshman quarterback was thrown into action in an emergency and that should’ve been a recipe for disaster. But it wasn’t.

It just seemed as if the stars were going to align in favor of Georgia. Finally, the Bulldogs’ breakthrough moment was going to come and wipe away all the bad memories of the past 37-plus years and make all those heart-wrenching moments worth it.

Instead, Georgia fans were given a new sour moment to add to the list – and this one won’t ever be topped.

The Bulldogs had the win in hand. They led early and dominated on defense in the first half. I knew their underwhelming offensive execution during the first two quarters could come back to bite them against a team like Alabama. The Tide have proven under Nick Saban that you can’t beat them with field goals.

Much has been made about a handful of missed calls by the game’s officials. The referees definitely had a bad night but Georgia would have won had it gotten into the end zone on those early opportunities, plain and simple.

Regardless, I believed in my heart Georgia would find a way to seal the deal. After all, the Bulldogs delivered all year when it mattered most.

That belief spilled out of my heart after it was broken for the hundredth time by this team.

You see, I’ve been a Georgia fan all my life – 24 years and two months. Although there have been so many double-digit win seasons – and I fully understand most programs would kill for that rate of success – it still has always seemed like if the Bulldogs can find a way to blow big opportunities, they’re going to do it. It’s such a snakebitten program.

After the game Monday, I thought about all those heartbreaking times.

That 2002 season was something else and, much like this year, gave Georgia fans a handful of special memories. However, a loss to Florida cost Georgia a chance at that year’s national championship. The Bulldogs won the Sugar Bowl over a good Florida State team but that year seemed to start a trend of Georgia being really good but not good enough.

Georgia repeated as SEC East champ the next year but fell to LSU in the title game and LSU went on to win it all. Seniors David Greene and David Pollack returned in 2004 for what would surely be a magical ride like we experienced this year. But mid-season losses to Tennessee and Auburn cost the Bulldogs their third-straight division title.

D.J. Shockley took Bulldog Nation by storm in 2005 and led the Bulldogs to the SEC title but, again, it wasn’t quite good enough to nab a chance to play for a national championship. The 2007 squad went 11-2 – and, if you ask Georgia fans, was robbed of a chance to play for the title – but the Bulldogs would have been in that conversation if not for regular-season defeats to South Carolina and Tennessee.

The Matthew Stafford-led Bulldogs returned in 2008 with a preseason No. 1 ranking. They went 10-3, missed the SEC championship game and played in the Citrus Bowl. Joe Cox assumed Stafford’s spot in 2009 and Georgia went just 8-5.

Aaron Murray’s first year saw Georgia lose A.J. Green for a few games because of a suspension. That, coupled with the fact Georgia was extremely young, sent the Bulldogs to a lowly 6-7 record.

Murray led them to Atlanta the next year; though it might have been a stretch, a spot in the BCS national championship could have been in play if they had just beaten LSU. Georgia laid a gigantic egg in that game, losing 42-10.

Then came the 2012 SEC championship game against Alabama. We all know how that one ended.

The 2013 season was hampered by several injuries, 2014 was pretty good but not good enough to make it back to Atlanta and 2015 was the straw that broke Mark Richt’s camel’s back.

And those are just the disappointing seasons; I didn’t even touch on the bad individual losses, such as the 2016 Hail Mary loss to Tennessee, 2014’s home loss to Georgia Tech (the last game I attended as a student) or, most notably behind 2012’s loss to Bama, the 2013 Prayer at Jordan-Hare.

Yet, as I write all this and fume over those “what might have been” moments, I’m still wearing a Georgia T-shirt. My fandom runs deep despite those moments of pure devastation.

And that fandom makes me believe in the future. I’ve said the last two years I think Kirby Smart is the coach who will lead Georgia to the promised land, and I sincerely think he is. It just wasn’t meant to be this year.

Next year’s signing class is currently tops in the country and will likely finish that way. I don’t expect that will be the last time those words are written or uttered with Smart at the helm.

The future is bright, Georgia fans. This loss absolutely sucks, and it will take a long, long time to get over it.

But remember, a wounded dog is a dangerous dog, and it’s always darkest before the dawn.  

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